When the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps, was first implemented nationally in the 1970s, just one in 50 Americans participated. Today, according to the Congressional Budget Office, one in seven Americans receives SNAP benefits, at a total cost of more than $6 billion per month.
Maine is one of several states that has recently decided to challenge the status quo by implementing measures to help move people off of welfare rolls into self-sustaining jobs. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have shown they understand the need to transform welfare policies from those that trap citizens in long-term poverty to policies that reduce welfare dependency and reward work.
When LePage assumed office in 2011, one in three people living in the state was enrolled in some sort of welfare program. To address this crisis, in October 2014, Maine started requiring about 16,000 able-bodied childless adults to work, train, or volunteer on at least a part-time basis in order to continue receiving food stamps. Adults who refused to comply with the new requirements would cycle off of the state’s welfare rolls after three months of receiving benefits.
After implementing these reforms, Maine quickly moved thousands of adults out of government dependency. By January 2015, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps had dropped to 4,500 and has continued to decline. Maine ranked first in the nation in 2014 for its decline in food-stamp dependency, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federal Nutrition Service. Today, only 1,500 able-bodied childless adults rely on food stamps in Maine—a tremendous accomplishment.
Not only has Maine reduced the number of welfare enrollees, but the recent welfare reforms have led to more employment, higher earnings, and less dependency, according to a preliminary report published in May by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Office of Policy and Management. Within one year, able-bodied adults studied in the report saw their incomes rise by an average of 114 percent.
According to the report, recipients still relying on the program are working more, which means they need less government assistance. This explains why average benefits dropped 13 percent since the work requirements went into effect. As a result of these changes, taxpayers are now saving between $30 million and $40 million each year.
In 2015, Maine reestablished asset testing for those receiving food stamps. Any person applying or reapplying for SNAP benefits are now required to disclose certain assets. The assets examined do not include home equity or a primary vehicle, but they do include bank account balances and recreational vehicles, such as snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, ATVs, and other valuable assets. Under the new rule, households without children would become ineligible for SNAP benefits if such assets exceed $5,000 in value.
Asset testing in Maine will help the state continue its recent progress. Welfare and SNAP should only be available to those who truly need assistance, and asset tests play an important role in ensuring enough resources are available for Maine’s most impoverished citizens.
In The Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card, Maine receives a D- grade and ranks 34th for its anti-poverty policies. Since the report card was released, Maine has made considerable changes to its welfare program, including implementing the federally recommended 60-month time limits and instituting full-family sanctions for recipients who do not comply with work requirements. Maine had over 15,000 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—commonly called welfare—cases when LePage took office. That number is now down to less than 5,000. Because of the progress made in Maine, The Heartland Institute estimates the state’s ranking has now increased to 11th for its anti-poverty policies.
In an effort to manage the growing costs associated with SNAP, a bill was introduced in Congress that would reform the program by implementing stricter work requirements for “able-bodied” adults who don’t have any dependents receiving assistance and by giving these individuals help with employment training and job-search tools needed to help them overcome poverty. The new bill, titled the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act, is modeled on Maine’s successful reforms and the welfare reforms of 1996.
While there is certainly more work to be done—such as reducing lifetime limits on TANF from 60 months to 36 months or 48 months, like a dozen states have already done—other states aiming to move more welfare recipients from government dependency to self-sufficiency should look to Maine as a successful example. As additional states begin to implement similar reforms, more and more success stories will rise to the surface, and millions of Americans across the country will be better off for it.